Updated: Jan 26
Toronto’s Indigenous community is reclaiming its spirit
As the warming weather graced Toronto skies, snow melted from the Metropolitan Toronto Police Headquarters’ high beams, and droplets of water fell over the gathered crowd, as if tears were falling from the sky. Held every February 14th, No More Silence's annual Strawberry Ceremony gathered to support the end of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.
Water has a lot of symbolism in Indigenous culture, as participants were given a strawberry and water as part of the ceremonies. The main speaker explained that water is our protector in the womb; It is resilient and persistent, always finding its way back into the ocean. When we shed tears of grief, one day those tears turn into rainwater and come back to nourish the earth.
So today’s grief becomes tomorrow’s growth.
Despite the poeticism of Indigenous culture, many in the crowd were still grieving lost loved ones. One speaker’s pain was so palpable, it seemed to take all her effort to hold back wracked sobbing as her voice was thick with grief over the loss of her daughter, Helyna Lynn Rivera.
Choking back tears, she presented the poster commemorating Helyna's life with her grandchildren to the listening crowd.
“This is my daughter Helyna Lynn Rivera. Six Nations. Turtle Clan. Mother of four. These are her children.”
Helyna was only 25 years old when she was fatally shot in 2011 in front of her two youngest children. Helyna’s mother turned toward the considerable shortcomings of the federal government’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
With the recent shortcomings of the Canadian government to provide true, effective healing, the Indigenous community has grown stronger in building from within to ensure their own healing.
Starting in late December of 2015, the Government of Canada created a pre-inquiry process before officially stating its plans and appointing commissioners in August 2016. The Inquiry’s mandate is to investigate the varied structural, systemic and institutional problems that have created the profound epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Other speakers took the stage, including the father of Cheyenne Fox. Cheyenne was 20 years old when she fell off a 24-story balcony. Police ruled it a suicide and only had the ‘john’ she was with as a witness, an anonymous client she had at the time when she was working as an escort.
Her father is untrusting of the police and unhopeful the MMIWG Inquiry will go anywhere. He said it didn’t have the spirit in it, the true desire to listen to the grieving people and families.
“That’s all we wanted in the end, was to be listened to. And not to feel alone but they’re not doing that over there. They’re making a big mess.”
Instead, he found his healing through his community and staying closely connected to it. Every Thursday he attended a drumming circle to get his mind off his grief and be with his supportive community.
They listened to him when he spoke. They sat with him when he needed to cry. They helped him make peace with the loss of his daughter.
One of the main centers for the Indigenous community in downtown Toronto has been Council Fire Native Cultural Centre. The organization started as a small group gathered in churches in 1976 until it found its permanent home in 1997. Council Fire has a large program for youth leaders and this year held its inaugural Youth Pow Wow just six months after the Strawberry Ceremony.
Hosted on August 27th in Regent Park’s Big Park, the event officially began when cameras were turned off before The Grand Entry. Because of the sacredness of the ceremony, nobody is allowed to record. News station cameramen and bystanders alike had to switch off their devices.
The tents at the entrance of the park were designated for vendors representing Indigenous culture. A small white tent was occupied by one woman wearing sunglasses and a bright purple t-shirt with a logo of a whimsically feathered tophat.
Her station represented The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. According to their website, the goal of the fund is “to continue the conversation that began with Chanie Wenjack’s residential school story, and to support the reconciliation process through awareness, education and action.”
From 1876-1996 under the Indian Act, the Canadian federal government established Residential Schools that incorporated religious-based education for “aggressive assimilation” of Indigenous youth through religion and education.
This gave the government legal jurisdiction to remove Indigenous children as young as 3 years old from their homes and communities, prohibiting them from practicing their culture and language. Children often faced excessive punishment that included physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse.
Today, the fund was created to support the reconciliation in Canada, raising funds for grants and local grassroots communities. Created by Canadian rock legend and The Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, he was inspired after hearing about the story of Chanie Wenjack.
Wenjack was a little boy who attended a residential school in Kenora and his body was found on the train tracks after trying to escape and head home, not realizing he had 600 kilometres to go.
Education has often been a contentious issue for Indigenous Canadians in part because of such legacies. The Pow Wow was a way to rectify the injustices of the past by celebrating the culture in the present day.
Tasunke Sugar is a youth leader at Council Fire who is part of the planning committee that created the success of the Pow Wow. As a young father in the city producing hip-hop and rap music and the host of a local Indigenous Youth radio show in Regent Park, Sugar recognizes the importance of having a traditional event in modern times.
He said, “these Pow Wows are giving the youth responsibility, pushing the youth to carry those responsibilities in a good way.”
He said planning the Pow Wow helped restore the youth’s identity as leaders and warriors in the community, and elders can be a tremendous source of inspiration for that. Within the fairgrounds, the last reserved tent was for elders and survivors of the 60’s Scoop and Residential Schools. Sugar explained Elders conduct prayers and speak on behalf of ancestors.
Council Fire’s main elder is Andrew Wesley, a residential school survivor. He is working with Council Fire on their Indian Residential School Survivor Legacy Project, which was highlighted at the Pow Wow.
There was a miniature sculpture of a grey turtle displayed on the fairgrounds, which is the project’s main goal. The grey turtle is only a model of the larger art installation that will be created through Council Fire, which is expected to be completed by 2020.
The IRSS Legacy Project addresses Call to Action 82 of the 94 Calls to Action released in 2015 by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, inspired by South Africa’s own TRC after the dismantling of Apartheid. Canada’s TRC was created to facilitate healing for residential school survivors by listening to their stories and creating Calls to Actions to rectify injustices of the past.
Call to Action 82 requires local government to collaborate with local organizations to install a Residential School monument in each capital city to honor Survivors and all the other children lost during the residential school era.
The Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Council Fire to create Toronto’s monument because of its work with Elders and Residential School Survivors. Communications and Research Coordinator of the project Liana Canzian shares Toronto’s project is a 9’x9’ turtle sculpture climbing a boulder.
She said, “On the turtle’s shell will have the different clans and nations, and on the boulder itself is the seventeen residential schools that existed in Ontario.”
The Turtle is a sacred symbol of Mother Earth in Indigenous culture, and its shell is meant to acknowledge former Residential School students and their Nations and Clans, placing them within the heart of creation. The Turtle climbing over the boulder that lists Residential Schools in Ontario symbolizes how they have overcome the struggles experienced in Residential Schools.
Canzian shares that though the project is making great strides in Toronto, out of the 94 Calls to Actions, not many have been addressed. According to CBC’s website Beyond 94, only 10 of the Calls to Action have been fully completed, with 51 in progress- either underway or proposed- and 33 not started.
The turtle sculpture will be completed by Anishnawbe artist Solomon King and will be placed within an Indigenous Healing Garden, in the southwest corner of Nathan Phillips Square. Working closely with Survivors, Canzian shares the impact of the project.
She said, “they’re really proud of the work Toronto Council Fire has done and they really believe that the centre is their home.”
Andrew Wesley came to Council Fire about fifteen years ago. Through the years, Wesley grappled with rage because of his experience in residential schools, the abuse he faced and the subsequent drug addiction he developed to cope. Finally, an elder spoke to him about his issues and taught him to love his inner child in order to heal himself.
He was finally able to turn the tears of grief into the nourishment his community needed to grow. This is why Andrew Wesley became Council Fire’s main elder.
Wesley said he has "been to the mountaintop of pain" and returned to share the ways in which he knows he’s healed, and what else is left to work on. He said, “I'm not angry anymore. But if I see something is wrong, done wrong to another human being or any creation species, I'll get angry, I'll get defensive.”
He considers himself a very caring and loving person. But he still has an issue with hugging, especially women. This is because he was often beaten by Catholic nuns. He made it a point later on in his life to understand Christianity better and regularly volunteers for a local church.
"Forgiveness makes you handle and control your anger and also to empower other survivors to show that you've been there and this is what you can do to heal yourself,” said Wesley.
For a long time, Andrew did not agree with reconciliation. He said, “I started to understand what reconciliation meant, that you have to come to terms with the harm that was done to you in order to get into that journey of forgiveness.”
After being a prominent figure at the TRC Hearings, Andrew came to Toronto where he became a permanent presence at Council Fire and the leader in the project. He is hopeful that it will help, especially because much of it is within the control of Council Fire. He sees the IRSS Legacy project as a promising new future for the community.
He said, “it’s a renewal. It's like going into a sweat lodge where you go back to your mother's womb and you come out renewed. I think that's what the project is all about. To be a whole person again.”